WITHIN Cosa Nostra, they spoke of a certain Christian Democratic politician as close to the organization.
So close, in fact, said former top Mafioso Leonardo Messina, that they called him, almost affectionately, "uncle."
The politician, he told investigating magistrates on Jan. 9, was Giulio Andreotti, the internationally respected statesman, the seven-time prime minister of Italy.
Mr. Andreotti was notified March 27 by judges in Palermo that he was under investigation for links to the Mafia. Andreotti, in a statement the same day, called the declarations of the ex-Mafiosi "absurd," recalling the "very tough and effective laws" he had proposed against the Mafia.
In asking Parliament to waive Andreotti's immunity from prosecution as a senator, the judges say he acted "in a systematic way ... to protect the interests and achieve the ends of the organization." There is no proof, they say, that the former prime minister was actually a Mafioso, though Mr. Messina testified on Jan. 9 that a fellow Mafioso prisoner had once told him Andreotti had been formally initiated. Messina is the only pentito, as ex-Mafia collaborators with justice are known, to have made this as sertion.
Parliament is to decide April 14 on lifting Andreotti's immunity.
The request comes as Italians have grown increasingly intolerant of Cosa Nostra. As a result, politicians, law enforcement officials, and investigating magistrates are intensifying the fight against organized crime.
"The climate has changed in Italy," says Leoluca Orlando, the head of the Rete, a clean government, anti-Mafia party. "Some of the politicians that were before untouchable have lost power."
In January, Salvatore ("Toto") Riina, the reputed "boss of bosses" in the Sicilian Mafia, was arrested. In addition to the Andreotti probe, two judges and five parliamentarians in Naples were notified last week that they are under investigation for ties to the Camorra criminal organization. And on March 31, the parliamentary anti-Mafia commission presented its first-ever report on the relations between the Mafia and politics, which was excerpted in two pages of La Repubblica.
The Christian Democratic Party (DC) immediately denounced the commission's report for placing too much faith in the statements of pentiti. And on April 2, in a move criticized inside and outside the party, the DC presented a formal statement to the Italian public prosecutor saying a "political conspiracy" was manipulating pentiti testimony to discredit Andreotti and others.
Recent polls show Italians are much more reluctant to stay silent about the Mob's activities. A key reason is revulsion at the brutal murders allegedly carried out by Mr. Riina's agents, including those last year of anti-Mafia judges Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino. Falcone had led investigating magistrates during the 1980s "maxi-trials," which sentenced 338 Mafiosi.
"The deaths of these two men was the point of no return in Italian democracy," says Gian Maria Fara, head of the Ispes political institute here.
"The attacks in reality served to weaken the organization, both inside and outside," adds Piero Grasso, a judge in the 1980s maxi-trials. "Many investigators have said that this has made people think again about the Mafia."
The announcement that Andreotti was under investigation stunned the world, but some of those who have fought the Mafia for years had a different reaction.
Falcone, who is revered here for his painstaking anti-Mafia investigations, would not have been surprised, said former Judge Giuseppe Ayala, who worked closely with him. Antonino Caponnetto, the former head of the anti-Mafia pool of judges, told Epoca magazine he was not all that surprised to hear that Andreotti was under investigation and added, speaking of the Andreotti government's strug-gle against the Mafia, "Perhaps I was paying attention to other things, but I wasn't aware of it."
The Palermo judges write to Parliament that in April 1982 Carlo Alberto Dalla Chiesa, a respected anti-Mafia Carabiniere general, "had identified the Andreotti current in Sicily as the `most polluted political family of the place' ... the expression within the DC of a Mafioso politics ... the source of the greatest danger for his future activity." Dalla Chiesa was murdered by Cosa Nostra in Palermo, Sept. 3, 1982.
Central to the current probe is European Parliament Deputy Salvo Lima, who was gunned down in Palermo March 12, 1992. The former Palermo mayor was well known for two things: He was Andreotti's No. 1 man in Sicily and the Sicilian politician closest to the Mob. Since the murder, Andreotti has repeatedly said it has not been proven that Lima was linked to the Mafia.
"Salvo Lima was long the point of [contact] for various Mafia families," said the anti-Mafia commission's report, which then cited testimony given to the Palermo magistrates on Sept. 11, 1992, by super-pentito Tomasso Buscetta. "To my knowledge," Mr. Buscetta declared, "Salvo Lima was the politician to whom Cosa Nostra mainly turned for matters of interest to the organization that required a solution in Rome."
"Senator Andreotti is precisely the person to whom Salvo Lima constantly turned for decisions to be taken in Rome affecting the interests of the Mafia," Gaspare Mutolo, an ex-Mob hit man and driver for Riina, told the Palermo judges March 4.
Buscetta, in subsequent testimony to the anti-Mafia commission, said he would only name the Mob's "Roman point of [contact]" to the judges. The commission notes, however, that "the declarations of Buscetta and Mutolo are substantially the same." The Palermo judges add that "Giulio Andreotti combines in himself almost all the qualities" that Buscetta described.
The anti-Mafia commission describes Bus-cetta, a high-ranking Mafia penitent, as the pentito best acquainted with Cosa Nostra's mentality.
Lima's demise was ordered after a Mafia defeat in the courts, pentiti say. The April 6 Epoca magazine says pentito Baldassarre Di Maggio, the former driver and bodyguard of Riina whose revelations led to the latter's arrest, told judges early this year that in October or November 1991 he drove Lima, at Riina's request, from the Rome airport to then-Prime Minister Andreotti's private office in central Rome. Italy's Supreme Court of Cassation, the highest appeals court, was preparing to decide on the legal ity of 19 life sentences of Mafiosi handed down in 1987. Mr. Di Maggio said that Cosa Nostra wanted a decision favorable to the organization and that Lima had promised to bring the matter up with Andreotti.
The Mafia had faith in the Court of Cassation, Mr. Mutolo told the Palermo judges, because it thought it had a special political channel to reach Judge Corrado Carnevale of the court. That channel, the judges say, was Giulio Andreotti.
"It was said [within the Mafia], in fact, that Senator Andreotti had a special personal relationship with Carnevale," the judges write.
Carnevale denies knowing either Andreotti or Lima and says any annulling of sentences was done collegially. Carnevale was advised on March 29 that he was under investigation for ties to the Mafia. In January 1992, the Court of Cassation upheld the maxi-trial sentences. Two months later Lima was murdered.
"Mutolo emphasized that Lima had been killed because he was a symbol of that political faction which, after it had used Cosa Nostra, had then betrayed its commitments on the maxi-trials," the Palermo judges write. "What Mutolo heard [within the Mafia], in fact, was that it was necessary to send `a message to his master.' "
Andreotti maintains Lima could have been murdered in retaliation for the Andreotti government's anti-Mafia stance.